Song Review: Randy Houser, “Note To Self”

Sure it’s off-brand Eric Church, but that’s still a better starting point than most tracks.

To be honest, I’d mostly forgotten about Randy Houser: He hadn’t released a single since 2019, and the songs I’d reviewed here on the blog (“What Whiskey Does,” “No Stone Unturned”) impressed neither me nor the general public (neither song reached the Top 30 on Billboard). However, instead of catching a “train out of Nashville” as I hypothesized back in 2019, he went underground for the better part of three years, and has now returned to the charts with a new single “Note To Self,” the presumed leadoff single to his sixth album. I was prepared to forget about this song, but instead what I found is…well, a note not just to self, but to the rest of us as well, mostly concerning what they’ve learned in the wake of a failed relationship. It’s not quite on the level of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a worthwhile listen with some solid advice contained within it.

The composition of the arrangement is nothing you haven’t heard before: You’ve got your guitars, your drums, your keyboards, and the pedal steel required by Nashville ordinance. I wouldn’t call the resulting sound novel or even memorable, but I would call it suitable for and supportive of the story being told. The production eases in by leading with an acoustic axe and keeping the organ and electric guitars in the background for the verses, and then turns the drums and steel guitar loose on the first chorus to let the sound swell up and help emphasize the points being made. (The steel guitar plays a progressively large part in the mix as the song goes along, and even takes the lead on the bridge solo.) Although the volume and power levels vary during the song, the sound takes great pains not to get in the way of the writing. In stead, the tones here are neutral and create a reflective vibe, inducing introspection in the listener rather than trying to bury them in noise. This is a message that they want you to hear, and the arrangement does a nice job supporting the lyrics and enhancing their impact. For as often as I bash producers for awkward and ill-fitting mixes, I have to hand it to those behind the board here, because this one fits like a glove.

For Houser’s part, despite finding success mostly as a Metro-Bro artist in the early 2010s, he doesn’t carry around the baggage that someone like Tyler Hubbard does, and as an official industry veteran on the backside of 45, he’s exactly the sort of artist that you would expect to have seen a few things and lived to sing about them. The song isn’t a technically demanding one and Houser eases through it without a problem, but he also exhibits enough charisma to cover the emotional demands of the song as well. He does a nice job injecting feeling into the song without oversinging in, allowing the listener to share the narrator’s pain and convince them that the wisdom contained here is hard-won and firsthand. There’s a maturity here that was missing from a track like “What Whiskey Does,” and it allows Houser to complete the face turn and make his narrator both believable and sympathetic in the eyes of the audience. It’s a lot more than I expected from him, and by successfully distancing himself from his less-than-stellar past discography, it indicates that there might be hope for other artists that have yet to reach that inflection point.

The lyrics here start as a laundry list of the sort of advice you would expect from someone growing out of their ‘youthful indiscretion’ phase: Trucks need gas, credit card aren’t real money, spur-of-the-moment hold-my-beer ideas are generally not great, and so on. As the song goes on, however, the song becomes more targeted, and the narrator slowly reveals that they neglected their relationship and lost their partner as a result. This is the best example of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve seen in a while: Through statements like “love ain’t diamond rings/bigger don’t always mean better” and “you’re gonna wish she would’ve when she tells you she don’t wanna fight,” we discover not only that the narrator was at fault for the relationship collapse, we learn the whys and hows behind it: In the classic money vs. love debate, the narrator chose the former and spent so much time chasing a dollar that they ignored the emotional needs of their ex, who endured the pain in silence until they finally up and left. (My favorite line, however, is that “whiskey’s best left up there on the shelf,” a powerful statement that the narrator delivers despite it being blasphemy in Nashville’s booze-soaked culture.) So many songs talk about drowning your sorrows and trying to forget a relationship, but only a rare few provide a detailed instruction manual to its audience, outlining where the speaker went wrong and how others can avoid the same fate. By facing the loss head-on and trying to turn it into something positive, the song not only demands your attention, it demonstrates that it’s worthy of it.

Quality continues to emerge in unexpected places in 2022, and “Note To Self” is another example of this trend. Neither the sound nor the singer would be anything special on their own, but when paired with stronger writing, suddenly the production becomes thoughtful and supportive, and Randy Houser moves beyond songs like “We Went” and imparts the narrator’s wisdom with aplomb. I think this is the blueprint Nashville should use going forward: Start with better material, and find a sound and an artist that can most-effectively deliver the message. Given Houser’s recent track record, I don’t know if this will be enough to resuscitate his career, but if he’s going down, he’s going down swinging, and leaving us with some final nuggets that we can put to good use.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth hearing.

Song Review: Randy Houser, “No Stone Unturned”

Apparently “What Whiskey Does” is send you rambling aimlessly across the country.

Ever since the Bro-Country boom went bust, Randy Houser has been floundering trying to chart a new direction for his music. His last gasp of success came when “We Went” took over forty weeks to top the charts over three years ago, and his career has been in a nosedive ever since: “Song Number 7” peaked at an awful #43, “Chasing Down A Good Time” didn’t make the Billboard chart at all, and even the typical leadoff-single bump couldn’t get “What Whiskey Does” any higher than #31 (which, frankly, was a higher peak than it deserved anyway). Now, with his mainstream career at the edge of a metaphorical plank staring down at the sharks circling below, Houser and Stony Creek Records are putting all their chips on “No Stone Unturned,” the second single from Houser’s latest album Magnolia. The track is a welcome change of pace after the Kavanaugh-stained soliloquy that was “What Whiskey Does,” but that’s about all it is, and a reflective look on his path to this moment doesn’t strike me as the kind of track that’s going to provide a liferaft to catch him when he falls.

The production here adheres to the “less is more” philosophy, and actually executes it rather well. The primary melody carrier is…a banjo? A dobro? It’s hard to tell because it’s drowned in muting audio effects, in contrast to the sharp, clear acoustic guitar that joins in sporadically throughout the track. Beyond a marching-band snare holding down the percussion line, that’s pretty much everything you hear (some electric guitars and keyboards jump in from time to time, but they don’t add much of anything to the mix (the electric axe deserving special calling out for that weaksauce attempt at a solo). The track maintains a bright feel despite the regular minor chords tossed in, but the energy level is hard to describe: The sound feels like it wants to slow down and drag, but it generally doesn’t, as if the drums (especially that marching snare) are dragging the song reluctantly along at a semi-brisk clip. While the arrangement deserves props for stepping back and letting the lyrics take the lead (and giving them an optimistic, forward-looking glow with the sound), the writing isn’t really strong enough to handle the spotlight it’s given (more on that later). It’s not bad, but it doesn’t leave much of an impression either.

Houser’s ace in the hole has long been his underrated power vocals, but much like the production, he holds himself back on “No Stone Unturned” to let the writing steer the conversation. It’s not a terrible decision on its own, but it seems to limit his charismatic influence here: I can buy him in the narrator’s role as a music-driven drifter, but I really don’t feel anything in his story. He’s just recounting his story at a high level, and I’m just yeah-ing and uh-huh-ing along while not really paying attention to him. It’s a fine performance on a technical level (easy, smooth delivery, effortless range, and a moderate flow that doesn’t seem to test him), but it lacks that special something to make the song distinct or memorable (which is a problem given how much of a trope the wandering cowboy is in this genre). If you put anyone else behind the microphone for this track, you would never notice the difference, and when you’re as talented a vocalist as Houser is, that should never be the case.

The lyrics here are a mixed bag, as the narrator recounts the high-level tale of their journey through life and love, and the occasional mind-altering substance. The “no stone unturned” hook feels like the writers being too clever by half, as very little in the rest of the song validates the “no turn un-stoned” flip: There’s “Tennessee booze,” a few allusions to Colorado tripping and California partying, and that’s it. The length of the trek also forces the writers to spend very little time talking about each stop along the way, mostly leaving out the details that the audience might grab onto and visualize the scenes as they played out. (I liked the “broken guitar through the heart” line, but that’s the only line that really stuck with me.) The whole song feels very neutral to me: There are no offensive descriptions or sleazy undertones, but there aren’t any deep emotions here either, as the song rolls right through the passing joy and sadness like a freight train steaming towards its next destination. It’s like the song wants you to feel something, but doesn’t give you the time to actually feel it before whisking you away. For a track that really needs to hit its marks, this is a bit concerning.

“No Stone Unturned” is an okay song on balance, but it’s a long way from being the showstopping, heart-in-your-throat track that Randy Houser needed. The production tries to write a check that the writing can’t cash, and Houser doesn’t have the emotional presence here to tie all the pieces together. I sincerely hope Houser’s ready to turn over a few more stones, because with the way his career is going, he’ll be a train out of Nashville before too long.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins, but not much more.

Song Review: Randy Houser ft. Hillary Lindsey, “What Whiskey Does”

Dear Randy Houser: You need to think a lot more about “What Whiskey Does.” The answer is worse than you think.

Houser is best known for his brief Bro-fueled run in the early/mid 2010s (“How Country Feels,” “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” “Goodnight Kiss”), but his mainstream career actually stretches back to 2008, when he earned some light applause for his Top Twenty hit “Anything Goes.” If you missed hearing that song back in the day, don’t fret: After roughly three years of wandering in the wilderness following “We Went” (he released two singles after that, neither of which made the Top 40), Houser has teamed up with successful songwriter Hillary Lindsey and released “What Whiskey Does,” the leadoff single from his newest album Magnolia and essentially a prequel to his 2008 debut. It’s a song with a terrible sense of timing and it gets more troubling the more you listen to it, because I can’t listen to it without thinking about “what whiskey does” to people beyond the drinker.

Let’s start with the positives first. Of the three songs I’ve reviews thus far this week, this is easily the most traditional-sounding one of the bunch. Houser opens the song himself (which isn’t a bad decision; more on that later), but he’s quickly joined by a prominent drum set, a steel guitar, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and a psychedelic-sounding electric guitar to establish a haunting, reflective atmosphere. On the surface, it’s the sort of slower, emotional production I’d expect from the last two songs I reviewed, but the somber instrument tones and minor chords take this track to a much darker place and give the song a palpable sense of pain and anguish. It doesn’t quite mesh with the lyrics on first glance (not all of the outcomes mentioned here are negative), but it definitely encapsulates the narrator’s inner conflict: They’re in a world of hurt and trying to convince himself that drinking might make things better, but the production’s vibe indicates that they’re only kidding themselves. All in all, it’s a well-executed mix that really helps transmit the narrator’s pain to the listener.

Houser tends to be overlooked when the best voices of country music are counted (heck, I left him off my list just last week), but he’s got more than enough power in his delivery to hang with the A-listers. What’s more interesting, however, is how well he performs on this song, which is decidedly not about power vocals. The verses are delivered in a lower, measured tone than the choruses, but Houser handles both ends of the spectrum beautifully, bouncing back and forth between the understated emotion of the verses and the anguished power of the choruses and bridge. (His flow feels a bit awkward at times, but that’s more an issue of the writing than anything else). While I’m not really impressed with Houser and Lindsey’s vocal chemistry (their voices don’t blend together that well), Lindsey’s background vocals are solid and they add extra weight to some of the more poignant lines. While Houser certainly gets a helping hand from the production in passing his pain to his audience, given his strong performance here, I’m not sure he needed the help.

To recap, this song has a great sound and Houser delivers a solid performance. So why am I so ambivalent about it? This is where the timing issue comes in: The narrator spends the entire song talking about what drinking whiskey might make him do, and I can’t listen to it without the image of a certain Supreme Court nominee popping into my mind.

For those of you who stumble across this post years from now, as of this writing the United States Senate is in the process of holding confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, three women have come forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and other inexcusable behaviors dating back to the 1980s. Opinions on the the matter, as with everything in Washington these days, have mostly split along party lines, but one thing I’ve noticed is the role of alcohol in these stories:

Speaking publicly for the first time, [Christine Blasey] Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County. The Washington Post (emphasis added)

[Julie] Swetnick, in the affidavit posted on Twitter by Avenatti, claims that she saw Kavanaugh, as a high school student in Maryland in the early 1980s, “drink excessively at many” house parties in suburban Maryland. CNBC (emphasis added)

Being drunk does not excuse such disgusting behavior, of course, but the excessive consumption of alcohol by the accused appears to be a common thread in these attacks.

This bring us back to the narrator in “What Whiskey Does,” whose attitude bothers me for two reasons:

  • The outcomes of this night of drinking that the narrator considered are very self-centered: This could happen to me, or that could happen to me.  They never stop to consider that drinking could cause pain and suffering to more than just the drinker, making them sound callous and irresponsible.
  • There’s a certain word that appears a lot in this song, and it really irritates me…

    Maybe it’ll make me lose my mind
    Maybe it’ll help me forget this time
    Maybe it’ll put my fist through the wall
    Make me pick up the phone and give you a call
    Maybe it’ll take me somewhere I’ve never been
    Make the world stand still, make the whole room spin
    Maybe make me dance, make me cry…

    Maybe? MAYBE?! This dude knows full well that this night could go completely off the rails and he could cause an incredible amount of physical and emotional damage, and he doesn’t even freaking care! It doesn’t matter how much pain you think you’re in, pal, you need to think long and hard about the consequences of your actions and not just brush them off.

I can’t blame Randy Houser for his song cracking the Mediabase Top 50 in the middle of a Supreme Court battle, but I can blame him for using his lost-love pain as an excuse to absolve himself of all responsibility. All the power vocals and pedal steel in the world can’t hide the collateral damage his devil-may-care attitude could cause, and just like with Carlton Anderson, I’m not going to give him a pass on that just because it sounds good.

Country music has always had a drinking problem. Maybe it’s time we did something about it.

Rating: 4/10. I swear, songs like this are going to drive me to drink someday.